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Friday, April 04, 2014

MISSING PLANE

I find the two mysteries tragically familiar. It was after midnight, Sunday March eighth, local time when the Boeing jet roared down runway 32 right, before heading north toward the Gulf of Thailand. And it was just about midnight Tuesday July Second, Greenwich Mean Time, when the Lockheed Electra lifted off the grass airfield twelve time zones east of Greenwich, in the center of the village of Lae, Papua New Guinea, before climbing eastward out over the Solomon Sea.
Both machines were state of the art, the best available design, with years of dependable service behind them.  Both carried fuel enough for their intended 2,000 mile flights. Both pilots were well trained and experienced. And at first the two flights were routine, on course and on time. And then, suddenly, both planes were gone. Vanished. Poof! As if with the wave of a magician's hand. And if in retrospect neither search was as extensive and exhaustive as it originally seemed, this may not bode well for finding Malaysian flight 370, because almost eighty years later we still don't know what happened to Amelia Earhart.
Five hours after take off the thirty year old aviatrix reported back to Lea, via her 50 watt transmitter, that she was crossing 150 degrees east longitude, and 7 degrees south of the equator at 10,000 feet. The Electra's estimated ground speed was 140 knots (160 mph), the air temperature was 90 degrees Fahrenheit and visibility limited only by the humidity. She signed off with her call sign, KHAQQ. Three hours later, in the dark and right on time, Earhart's Electra flew over the United States Navy tug, Ontario. But it was here that things started to go wrong.

The tug was right where it was supposed to be, at 165 degrees 20 minutes east, and 2 degrees 59 minutes south, approximately the half way point for this leg of Earhart's round the world flight. The seas were calm, with the Ontario reporting visibility of at least 40 miles, cloud cover of only 20 - 40%. But Amelia was expecting the Ontario to broadcast the letter “N” in Morse code (dash -dot) for five minutes, beginning ten minutes after the hour, on 400 kilocycles. However the Ontario was instead broadcasting the letter” A” (dot-dash), every hour on the half hour, at 7500 kilocycles. They never contacted each other, but at 0800 GMT, Amelia reported back to Lea, that she was at 12,000 feet, on time and on course.

Despite the miscue, we know Amelia and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were on time and course because they overflew the tramp steamer Mytlebank, about a hundred miles northeast of the Ontario. The third mate heard the plane to his starboard, at just about the same time the ship's radio operator heard Amelia broadcast, “Ship in sight, ahead”. That encounter, ten hours out of Lea, had Earhart and Noonan flying into the rising sun of July 2, 1937, well over half way toward their destination across the international date line, where it was just Tuesday morning on tiny Howland Island.

It was a curious target. The coral atoll was just a mile long and about a half mile wide. It's highest point was just nine feet above the surf. To spot it from the air, you had to practically be parked on its crushed coral runway.  But it was United States territory, its bird droppings mined by American nitrate companies since the middle of the 19th century. 

Howland was occupied in three month rotations by four students of an Hawaiian boys school, and they called their tiny collection of huts Itascatown, after the 250 foot long Coast Guard cutter that supplied the outpost. And it was the Itasca, anchored just outside the western reef , commanded by Walter Thompson, that was supposed use it's two hundred foot mast to make radio contact and guide Earhart's plane to a safe landing.
The sun rose over Howland Island at 17:15 GMT. Forty-five minutes later, with Amelia reporting she was within 100 miles of the Itasca, radioman 3rd class William Galten heard Amelia' asking, “Please take bearings on us and report in half an hour."  It was a simple request, but Galten would be unable to comply, because the Itasca's CGR-321 transmitters did not have any directional capability or meters on 3105 frequency to indicate her signal strength.
Rather, Galten estimated the Electra's distance based on the volume of Amelia's voice, which Galten labeled as a four out of a possible five. She was close, but it was purely a subjective measurement. To get direction to her signal and thus a better distance, required the use of a separate unit on the Itasca's bridge, operated by radio man third class George Thompson. But he found Amelia's broadcasts were too short to give him a fix.  At its core, the problem was not merely technical, but generational.
The established military and shipping industry, traveling at ten to twenty miles an hour, still relied on Morse code, because it provided longer range at lower power (and lower frequencies). But aviators, like Earhart, traveling at over a hundred miles an hour, preferred the shorter range of higher frequency voice communications. This mismatch manifested itself when Galten was forced to tell Amelia, “Cannot take bearing on 3105 (kilocycles)...Please send on 500 (kilocycles) or do you wish take bearing on us?” At 18:58 GMT Amelia asked Itasca to send signals at 500, but three minutes later radioed, “We received your signals but unable to get a minimum. Please take bearing on us and answer 3105 with voice.”
Nothing was working, and panic began to mount on the Itasca. Forty minutes later Earhart was reduced to telling Galten, “We are on the line 157, 337. Will repeat this message on 6210”. Now she was introducing a third, even higher frequency, on which the Itasca equipment could not broadcast voice. The frustration was palpable. One five seven and three three seven were north, south compass headings, and both passed directly over Howland Island. Amelia seemed so close and yet out of reach.
Captain Thompson (above) felt the urge to do something, to move. At 22:10 GMT, when Thompson figured Amelia's fuel would have run out, Itasca raised anchor and made steam toward the north and west, where Thompson thought there was enough cloud cover that might have hidden Howland Island from Amelia's eyes. But after three fruitless days, he switched his search to the north and east of Howland Island. When that also failed, the USS Colorado was ordered to take over the search.
Joined by the aircraft carrier Lexington, and even two Japanese ships, the searchers spent 19 days covering some 94,800 square miles in a surface search, and another 167,481 square miles by air. It was a week after Amelia disappeared, that a search plane from the Colorado, piloted by Lt. John Lambrecht, flew over a small island on the 157 line, 360 miles south east of Howland. The pilot reported, “signs of recent habitation were clearly visible” despite the island having been uninhabited for forty years. However “repeated circling...failed to elicit any answering wave...” That tiny oasis was named Gardner Island, and no one inspected it on foot for another 30 months.
After 19 days, and $4 million (64 million in today's dollars), the search was called off. Amelia Earhart was legally declared dead on January 5, 1939. And on December 20th of that same year, 20 Gilbertese natives were landed on Gardner Island, for the same reason the Hawaiian students had occupied Howling - to establish an international legal claim.
It was the British government's last attempt at empire expansion, and was headed by colonial officer Gerald Gallagher. The next year (1940) Gallagher reported finding a partial skeleton “possibly that of a woman," and “an old-fashioned sextant box” on the island's southeast corner. Back in Britain, Nazi planes were bombing London, and the report was given little thought. The bones were shipped off to colonial offices on Fiji, where they were given a cursory examination and then lost.
Were the bones those of Amelia Earhart? Maybe. But unless the coral encrusted remains of her Electra reside 600 feet below the waves breaking along the reef surrounding Gardner Island, we will never know for certain.
There have been no humans living on Gardner Island since 1963, and after 1979 its name was changed to Nikumaroro, as the British Empire finally retreated from the Pacific. Its new native governors abandoned the atoll to its large land crabs and birds. And if they know what happened to Amelia Earhart, they are not talking, anymore than the creatures who survive in the dark compressed depths 12,000 feet under the southern Indian Ocean are sharing the fate of the passengers and crew of  Malaysian flight 307.
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